On June 1 the European Environment Agency (EEA) published two new reports, the Annual European Union greenhouse gas inventory 1990-2015 and inventory report 2017 and Analysis of key trends and drivers in greenhouse gas emissions in the EU between 1990 and 2015, which reveal total greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union (EU) increased by 0.5% in 2015, the first rise since 2010, and transport is the main culprit.

The EEA notes that “gains in the fuel efficiency of new vehicles and aircraft were not enough to offset the additional emissions caused by a higher demand in both passenger and goods transport.” Emissions from road transport, which accounted for around a fifth of total EU greenhouse gas emissions, increased for the second successive year, rising 1.6%. Likewise, emissions from aviation - equivalent to around 4% of the EU total - grew by 3.3%.

This is in line with the long-term trend for transport. Greenhouse gas emissions from transport grew by 28% in the EU between 1990 and 2015, while emissions declined significantly in other sectors such as household (-25%) and industry (-37%). The European Commission (EC) has set a target of reducing transport emissions to 20% below 2008 levels by 2030 and 60% by 2050. Even if the member states are able to achieve the 20% target over the next 12 years, transport emissions will still be 7% higher in 2030 than they were in 1990.

Against this backdrop, rail has made significant progress in increasing carbon-efficiency, largely through electrification. According to the EEA, greenhouse gas emissions from rail transport account for 0.1% of total EU emissions and decreased by 54% between 1990 and 2015, primarily due to a 53% reduction in fossil fuel consumption. France, Germany and Britain accounted for 53% of EU rail emissions over this period.

In its Europe on the Move communication to the European Parliament, which was published on May 31, the EC sets out a series of initiatives which seek to reverse the upward trend in transport emissions. These include smart road charging based on usage, distance and emissions; incentivising markets for low-emitting products through public procurement; and cleaner and smarter mobility in cities.

The Community of European Railways and Infrastructure Companies (CER) has welcomed the EC’s proposal to develop road charging rules through the amendment of the so-called Eurovignette (Directive 1992/62), which CER hopes will encourage member states to charge more accurately for the social cost of road use.

However, CER also expresses concern that the proposals fall short of the measures put forward in the 2011 Transport White Paper, specifically on making internalisation of external costs mandatory for road transport in EU member states by 2020.

“In the Commission's 2016 public consultation on the directive's review, 67% of stakeholders supported mandatory distance-based charging for heavy goods vehicles, and 56% for all goods vehicles, CER says. “Distance-based infrastructure charging on roads is a pre-condition for fair competition with rail. In line with EU law, railways already pay distance-based track access charges everywhere in the EU. By contrast, even for major roads, charges (time-based vignettes or distance-based tolls) are currently only applied on about 20-25% of the network in Europe.”

CER also calls for a significant proportion of external-cost road charging revenue to be channelled into the development of sustainable transport modes with the aim of reducing the overall externalities of transport.

While targets for cutting emissions are set over a period of years, there are strong imperatives for short-term action by member states. Transport-related pollution is an immediate health problem which has reached crisis levels in some European cities. In Europe on the Move, the EC notes that the “crisis over diesel car emissions, public debate on the effects of emissions, and policy measures to discourage car use in urban areas have all contributed to making consumers far more aware of the impact of private transport on air quality, climate change and health.” At the same time, demographic trends such as ageing populations and urbanisation are reshaping the mobility landscape and strengthening the case for investment in sustainable transport.

While the electrification and automation of road transport will drive a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades, this huge technical and cultural shift will not happen overnight. By ensuring a level playing field between road and rail transport, with targeted investment to improve the competitiveness and attractiveness of rail transport, tangible short-term progress could be achieved through modal shift with its many environmental, economic and health benefits.